Tag Archives: Aliens

Biologists Taboo Artificial Life

Recently I’ve reviewed three new books by academic biologists on the future of life in the universe. All three books have gained high profile and prestigious reviews in major media and academia. (Which is how I heard of them.) And all of these books, and all of these prestigious reviews, seem to share and enforce a taboo against seriously considering the possibility that artificial life will make a big difference to the cosmos.

For example:

Arthur admits the possibility of intelligent life spreading across planets, … and Arthur admits the possibility of artificial life. … But somehow these admissions make little difference to his forecasts, which ignore the possibility of artificial life at places other than planets, or made out of stuff other than carbon. And which ignore the possibility of intelligent artificial life spreading very far and wide, to become even more common than non-artificial life.

Similarly:

I recently reviewed The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein a [Cambridge] zoologist says that aliens we meet would be much like us, even though they’d be many millions of years more advanced than us, apparently assuming that our descendants will not noticeably change in million of years.

And in a new book The Next 500 Years, a geneticist [and computational biologist] recommends that we take the next few centuries to genetically engineer humans to live in on other planets, apparently unaware that our descendants will most likely be artificial (like ems), who won’t need planets in particular except as a source of raw materials.

I actually just did a written debate with this last author, who wouldn’t even admit that I disagreed with him:

You write a long book mostly on the details of genetic engineering, saying we should use it to slowly change humans and their allied plants and animals, so that in 500 years we could launch them out to the cosmos, to arrive at other stars in a few thousand years.

I say, no, long before then artificial minds and life should have thoroughly replaced biology. A new kind of life, far more robust, able to grow far faster, able to travel out into space much sooner and faster, all made in factories out of stuff dug up in mines, and not at all based on biological cells, so that genetic engineering has little to offer them.

This all suggests more than just a few biologists with a mental block; it suggests an overall taboo within their shared intellectual culture, of biology academics who study astrobiology and our future. A taboo that has likely discouraged and distorted related research and analysis.

Added 30May: This post is discussed at Hacker News.

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The Biological Universe

In his new book The Biological Universe: Life in the Milky Way and Beyond, evolutionary biologist Wallace Arthur predicts the life we will find in the galaxy and universe:

Life forms are to be found across the Milky Way and beyond. They will be thinly spread, to be sure. … we can anticipate what life elsewhere will be like by examining the ecology and evolution of life on Earth.

Arthur defines life broadly:

If an entity is metabolically alive and membrane-bound, and groups of individual entities of this kind are characterized by variation, reproduction, and inheritance, then we describe the situation as ‘life’. … And regarding extraterrestrial life we should try to keep as open a mind as possible (p.13)

He says life is only near the surface of planets:

There are no macromolecules in [interstellar] clouds. There is thus no basis for life even approximately as we know it. So in the end we rule out all of the interstellar medium as a home for life. And that means in spatial terms that we have ruled out more than 99% of the galaxy. … Next we rule out suns. This means all suns and all parts them. No metabolizing, reproducing life, whether simple like bacteria, or more complex, like mammals, could exist in such a hellish environment. … By ruling out suns as possible homes for life, we rule out more than 99% of the matter of the galaxy. … Here’s a selection of other objects that seem likely to be barren. First, dead stars, including white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes. Second those entities somewhere in between a small star and a large planet that we call brown dwarfs. … Third, pulsars. (pp.42-44)

Arthur says most life is enclosed, made of carbon, and of long molecules with sequence specificity:

Carbon based life is the most probable, and hence more common, form of life in the Milky Wa, and indeed in the universe. … Life requires a type of macromolecule that exhibits sequence specificity that is that is similar in general, though not necessarily in detail, to the specificity that is found in nucleic acid and proteins. … Membrane-enclosed cellular life is the norm. (p.203)

Life is almost everywhere that it can be:

The fraction of habitable planets that actually become inhabited. My personal view is that it is close to 100%. (p.191)

And here is how many planets of each type:

Number of planets in Milky Way: 1 trillion
Number of planets with microbial life: 1 billion
Number of planets with animal life: 10 million
Number of planets with broadcasting life: between 0 and 1 million

Arthur even predicts more intelligent life is rarer:

Lets define four thresholds levels of intelligence. … animals with a small brain … crossed the first threshold. … Animals that can use tools, and indeed plan their use of tools, … cross the second threshold. … Animals that have begun to investigate the abstract nature of things, and to keep written records of their investigations, have cross the third threshold., … fourth threshold the achieving of a civilization with a technology that includes the use of radio signals and other means of interstellar communication, such as lasers. … It’s hard to believe that the number of planets whose evolutionary processes have crossed these four respective thresholds would go upward rather than downward. (p.328??)

How does Arthur make all these predictions? By assuming that that the distribution of stuff in the universe is much like the distribution of stuff across our solar system and across the history of Earth:

On the basis of Earth’s history to date, the fraction of microbial inhabited planets that also have animals can be estimated by the relative durations of these two types of life here, which is 630 million compared to 4 billion years. (p.200)

The fact that [intelligence] and the physical basis for it – the brain – can be downplayed or even lost altogether in some lineages [in Earth history] should temper our hopes for the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. … Natural selection is not on a long-term quest for the ultimate brainy animals. (p.134)

With regard to possible life, the vast majority of the solar system, like the vast majority of the galaxy, is of little interest to us. For the most part, our system looks barren. (p..139)

But doesn’t all this neglect the possibility of that intelligent life on some planet will develop a more robust and powerful artificial life, which then spreads widely across the cosmos? Arthur admits the possibility of intelligent life spreading across planets:

Between two and three billion years from now … if new make it that far, we might have the technology to colonize the closest suitable exoplanets. (p.160)

Intelligent life may have colonized nearby planets, as may the the case in the mid-term future wit humans on Mars. (p.315)

Planets on which radio-level intelligence has evolved constitute only a tiny fraction of those on which life in general has evolved. Yet because of the vastness of the universe, and perhaps also because of planetary colonization, there are many planets with such life-forms in the universe right now. (p.328)

And Arthur admits the possibility of artificial life:

But there is a caveat here. What about AI (artificial intelligence)? It’s a moot point whether any of our machines are yet intelligent enough to truly merit that label, though no doubt they will get there eventually. Perhaps the machines associated with ultra-intelligent aliens are already there. In this case, the intelligent universe and the biological universe … are overlapping sets. Having made this point, let’s focus on intelligent living beings across the universe, not intelligent machines. And let’s ignore the advanced organism-machine hybrids of science fiction, even though entities of this type probably exist somewhere. (p.318)

But somehow these admissions make little difference to his forecasts, which ignore the possibility of artificial life at places other planets, or made out of stuff other than carbon. And which ignore the possibility of intelligent artificial life spreading very far and wide, to become even more common than non-artificial life.

Arthur instead assumes that advanced intelligence and artificial life will just not spread much, perhaps due to self-destruction:

Intelligent life may have a tendency to self-exterminate within a few centuries of its inception. (p.221)

Wallace Arthur seems to be yet another biologists who just can’t imagine our descendants being that different from us, or artificial life making much of a difference to the cosmos.

Out of a great many reviews of this book I read, I only found one other reviewer, David Studhalter, a non-academic, making a similar complaint:

Arthur … blithely assumes that humans and their descendants will simply become extinct before advancing to a stage where they are spreading terriform life elsewhere in the Galaxy, and that we will never exceed the bounds of our own Solar system. … Arthur mentions virtually nothing discussed in this last paragraph. But they are crucial to his subject, which does purport to discuss the future of life. (More)

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Panspermia Siblings

The UFOs as aliens hypothesis is only as believable as the most a priori believable story for how it could be true. When I tried to find a story like that, I ended up relying heavily on the idea of panspermia siblings. And now that I’ve given that idea a bit more thought, I’ve realized that it is somewhat harder to arrange than I’d realized, and thus somewhat less believable. Making UFOs as aliens less likely, though still quite possible.

The scenario, if you recall, is that there are aliens visiting Earth today who have not expanded much to colonize and remake the universe, aliens who were born at a planet around a star that is a sibling to our sun. That is, this alien’s star was born in the same stellar nursery as our sun. This scenario requires three key elements:

Old Non-Expansionist Aliens – A substantial fraction of advanced civilizations choose not to expand and visibly remake the universe, but do choose to go visit their sibling stars that develop advanced life, and these civilizations last for longer than the typical differences between when advanced life would appear when grown from simpler life at the same level four billion years before. Thus a substantial fraction of alien civilizations must last for several hundred million years. (Oh and they choose do all these apparently-useless glow-buzzings of our treetops.)

Easy Earth Filter – In order for there to be at least two advanced civilizations both born from the same stellar nursery, it can’t be too hard to evolve advanced life from the sort of life that Earth starts with. The time of the origin of life on Earth and the time now remaining suggest 3-9 hard steps happened on Earth, if this whole time was take up by hard try-try steps. So we need some combination of a large nursery, fewer such hard steps, much of Earth history being taken up with delay steps instead of hard try-try steps, and the “hard” try-try steps not being that hard. So, for example, in a nursery of ten thousand stars, there might be just three try-try steps each only a factor of ten hard, and perhaps half of Earth history was taken up with delay steps.

Panspermia or Huge Try-Once Step – In order for life to spread across a large fraction of a stellar nursery, that life would have to appear within roughly a hundred million years after that nursery formed. So either life appeared from nothing very fast, mainly via some very hard try-once steps, or our nursery was seeded by life from an Eden at some other passing star, either just as our nursery was forming, or via a prior seeding of the molecular cloud which collapsed to form our nursery. (Which requires life to survive a long time in a molecular cloud.) On average stars pass within 5 parsecs of  such clouds every 50-100Myr.

While this prior Eden would have had a similar number of hard steps as Earth, those steps would on average be much harder, so that most of the total great filter would have happened at Eden. Very hard steps might include the very first life, and the transfer from Eden to a stellar nursery.

A 2012 paper in Astrobiology works out details of this scenario for life moving between star systems in a stellar nursery, where many stars are crammed together and many rocks are flying between them.

We don’t know when life first appear on Earth, but current best guess is 400Myr, with a range 200-800Myr, after the Earth and Sun formed together. They were formed together with ~1K-10K other stars, all packed close together.

Earth had water to support life within ~160–290 Myr, while our cluster took ~135–535 Myr for sibling stars to drift away from each other (the largest value is for the largest star clusters). During this early period there were a lot of rocks smacking into Earth kicking up a lot more rocks. Maybe the top kilometer of rock across Earth was kicked up.

About ~1% of these rocks were ejected from Earth with a weak enough impact shock to let life survive, and rocks of >10 kg seem like they could protect life from radiation and impact over the 3-5 million years it would take to drift to the closest star system in this cluster during this period. Some kinds of life could last that long.

About 2 * 10^11 such rocks would escape our solar system at a slow enough velocity to be captured by a neighboring star. Given such assumptions, if the nearest star were also Sun-like, then the number of such rocks ejected from Earth in this period that would land on an Earth-like planet around that nearest star is about 3*10^4. If that star had half the sun’s mass, this number falls to just 10^4.

Thus if our Sun’s stellar nursery were big enough, and if life appeared early enough in this cluster, then life might have spread to many stars in this cluster. And thus aliens could have evolved before us at one of those stars, and then came here to be the UFOs we see. But this is a lot of ifs, and so the a priori unlikeliness of this scenario has to be weighed against the a priori unlikeliness of: secret Earth orgs with really advanced tech, a vast conspiracy to create the false appearance of UFO encounters,  or mass delusions widespread enough to create the same.

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When The Tabooed Taboo

For Leslie Kean’s book “UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record”, the only social scientists I know who have written on UFOs, Alexaner Wendt and Raymond Duvall, wrote “a new essay … incorporating their ideas … into one designed for nonacademic readers, with some new thoughts added.” They say:

There is a taboo on this book – the UFO taboo. Not in popular culture, of course, where interest in UFO abounds and websites proliferate, but in elite culture – the structure of authoritative belief and practice that determines what “reality” officially is. With respect to UFO phenomena this structure is dominated globally by three groups: governments, the scientific community, and the mainstream media. … In public these groups share the official view that UFOs are not “real” and should not be taken seriously – or at least no more seriously than any other cultural belief. …The media reinforce this disinterest by rarely covering UFOs, and when they do it is inevitably with a wink and a nod, as if to reassure us that they don’t REALLY take UFOs seriously. …

Our thesis is that the origins of this taboo are political. … The threat is threefold. … very powerful “other” might actually exist … the UFO calls into question the states ability to protect its citizens from such an invasion. Second, … a confirmation of extraterrestrial presence would create tremendous pressure for a world government, which today’s terroritorial states would be loath to form. … Third, however, and in our view most important, … calls into question … [if] human beings have the ability and authority to govern and determine our collective fate. … human-centeredness is a modern assumption, one less common in prehistoric and ancient times, when Nature of the gods were considered more powerful that human beings and thought to rule. … In sum, the UFO creates a deep, unconscious insecurity in which certain possibilities are unthinkable. … akin to denial in psychoanalysis. …

The taboo has at least three weaknesses that make it … potentially unstable. … The kind of resistance that can best exploit these weaknesses might be called “militant agnosticism.” By “agnostic” here we mean that no position on whether UFOs are extraterrestrial should be taken until they have been systematically studied. … given our current knowledge, neither denial nor belief in the extraterrestrial hypothesis is justified; we simply do not know. … To be politically effective, however, resistance must also be militant, by which we mean public and strategic. … That is, what is needed above all else is a systematic science of UFOs, on the basis of which we might eventually be able to make informed judgements about them, as opposed to simply reiterating dogmas one way or the other. …

Such a science will have to do three things. First, it will have to focus on aggregate patterns rather than individual cases. … Second, … focus on finding new reports rather than analyzing old ones. This is because existing high-quality reports are relative few in number and were collected by accident and through a variety of means, making it almost impossible to find patterns. Finally, … focus on collecting objective, physical evidence rather than subjective, eyewitness accounts, for only the the former will convince the authorities that UFOs “exist”.

Kean concludes:

A deeper understanding of the unconscious aspects of the UFO taboo -the ones otherwise beyond our reach – is essential if we are to finally close the door on old ays of thinking and move this issue forward. … With the launching of a new U.S. government agency and the liberation of new resources, science could take its rightful place in the study of UFOs. … One impediment is that instead of looking at the data and taking steps to acquire more, main scientists have tended to interpret the issue theoretically and then give a theoretical reason for dismissing it. …

We have seen that there are solid, three-dimensional objects of unknown origin flying in our skies, stopping in midair and zooming toward outer space, which are apparently not natural or man-made. They’ve come very close and landed as well, leaving physical trails in soil while shriveling the leaves of nearby plants. They interact with aircraft and have physical effects on them. Photographs have caputured their image on film, and radar blips have done the same on tracking monitors. … There is more than enough evidence to determine that something physical is there.

We in this group are also “militant agnostics”: we don’t know what this something is, nor do we know what it is not. We are not making an extraordinary claim, because we’re not claiming anything beyond the reality of a physical phenomena. … We ask those on the two sides of this outmoded contest between unwavering believers and nonbelievers to realize the fallacy of both positions, and to accept the logical, necessity, and realism of the agnostic view. … Isn’t it time to acquire the additional evidence needed to find out what it is? If we need extraordinary evidence, then let’s do our job and go get it.

So, they say, to overcome the taboo among elites against seeing UFOs as anything more than hoaxes, lies, or delusions, we must study UFO patterns, especially the physical details in new UFO reports. And much more funding should go for that. But only that. As theory has been used to critique UFOs, to fight the anti-UFO taboo we must keep UFO theory taboo.

That is, in response to any question of theory, it seems that they say the only acceptable answer is “I don’t know”. One must not express more refined degrees of belief, neither numerically nor in terms a more refined partition of possibilities. Regarding various possible hypotheses, one must not discuss their prior plausibility, the likelihood which which each one predicts various empirical details, nor the appropriate posterior beliefs that best combine prior plausibility and empirical fit. Just say “I don’t know” and shut up.

(Yes, they allow an exception for expressing confidence that hoaxes, lies, delusions, and honest mistakes don’t work as explanations. And for giving detailed reasons for this confidence. But only those exceptions.)

This anti-theory taboo among the “serious” who study UFOs seems to me quite wide-spread and it has been going for a long time. You can find a vast amount of UFO work on many particular cases, some work on patterns across those cases, and even some work considering concrete physical mechanisms to explain some common patterns. But you will find almost nothing among the “serious” people on less proximate more social explanations. They are okay with saying that UFOs often seem intelligent, aware, and responsive, but not with discussing the goals, agendas, origins, or histories of those intelligences.

Alas, I have seen this before, in other areas of social science. In fields similarly dominated by empiricists who keep throwing more data papers on the pile, but offering few rewards to those who might try to make sense of all that data. Often because they wouldn’t like the best explanations. It seems that UFOs is now such a field.

Apparently reports have been submitted on over 100,000 UFO encounters worldwide in the last 75 years. Of which 5-10%, or 5K-10K, seem quite hard to explain. Yes, the taboo may have discouraged reports on ten times that number, and yes some governments have actively taken or prevented some data. But the rate at which encounters allow concrete physical samples to be collected seems to have gone way down over the decades, and it isn’t obvious to me that we will really learn that much more from sharper and longer pictures, videos, and radar images.

So an anti-theory taboo risks us spending another 75 years in data collection, after which we may still not know that much more than we do now. The point of data is to inform theory, and it still seems to me that we now have plenty enough data, not only to judge if there is something real, but also to do some theorizing. Yes much theorizing so far has been motivated and/or sloppy, but honestly most of that has been done by folks not very experience or skilled at social science theory. Which is why it seems a shame that social theorists Wendt and Duvall explicitly endorse the anti-theory taboo.

Well I plan to continue to ignore both taboos, both the anti-UFO one and the anti-UFO-theory one. And I invite other experienced and knowledgeable social theorists to join me. It may be less fun at times to work on tabooed topics, but when the taboo is unfair you can have much higher of making valuable contributions on them. And the huge potential importance of this topic seems obvious.

The quotes above seem to me a bit hypocritical in invoking the usual presumption against taboos when complaining about anti-UFO taboos, while not working much to overcome that presumption when declaring a new taboo. Yes, that combination of positions could be coherent, but one should at least notice and address the apparent conflict.

P.S. I think that independent juries evaluating the hardest to explain UFO cases would usually agree that they support the usual pattern claims, to the usual civil preponderance-of-evidence standard. I’d be willing to bet on that, and to join such a jury, but I’m not really interested in litigating this in comments here or elsewhere. Such a discussion needs to get into details of particular cases, which requires more than a few brief comments.

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Parsing Pictures of Mars Muck

On Thursday I came across this article, which discusses the peer-reviewed journal article, “Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images”. As its pictures seemed to me to suggest fungal life active now on Mars, I tweeted “big news!” Over the next few days it got some quite negative news coverage, mainly complaining that the first author (out of 11 authors) had no prestigious affiliation and expressed other contrarian opinions, and also that the journal charged fees to authors.

I took two small supportive bets and then several people offered me much larger bets, while no one at all offered to bet on my side. That is a big classic clue that you are likely wrong, and so I am for now backing down on my likelihood estimates on this. And thus not (yet) accepting more bets. But to promote social information aggregation, let me try to explain the situation as I now see it. I’ll then listen to your reactions before deciding how to revise my estimates.

First, our priors are that early Mars and early Earth were nearly equally likely as places for life to arise, with Mars being habitable sooner. The rates at which life would have been transferred between the two places look high, though sixty times higher from Mars to Earth than from vice versa. Thus it seems nearly as likely that life started on Mars and then came to Earth, as that life started on Earth. And more likely than not, there was once some life on Mars.

Furthermore, studies that put today’s Earth life in Martian conditions find many that would survive and grow on Mars. So the only question is whether that sort of life ever arose on Mars, or was ever transferred from Earth to Mars. Yes, most of the Martian surface looks quite dead now, including most everything we’ve seen up close due to landers and rovers. But then so does most of the surface of Antartica look dead, but we know is it not all dead. So the chance of life somewhere on Mars now is pretty high; the question is just how common might be the few special places in which Martian life survives.

This new paper offers no single “smoking gun”, but instead offers a collection of pictures that are together suggestive. Some of the authors have been slowly collecting this evidence over many years, and have presented some of it before. The evidence they point to is at the edge of detectability, as you should expect from the fact that the usual view is that we haven’t yet seen life on Mars.

Now if you search though enough images, you’ll find a few strange ones, like the famous “face on mars”, or this one from Mars:

But when there’s just one weird image, with nothing else like it, we mostly should go with a random error theory, unless the image seems especially clear.

In the rest of this post I’ll go over three kinds of non-unique images, and for each compare a conventional explanation to the exotic explanation suggested by this new paper. Continue reading "Parsing Pictures of Mars Muck" »

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UFOs Show Govt. Competence As Either Surprisingly High Or Low

Sometimes I pride myself on my taking an intellectual strategy of tackling neglected important questions. However, one indicator of a topic being neglected is that it seems low status; people who discuss it are ridiculed, and their intellectual ability doubted. Thus my strategy risks lowering my status.

To protect against this risk, I can set a policy of only tackling topics that seem to have a substantial synergy with my skills and prior topics. Which seems a valid policy, even if not entirely honest. For a long time this protected me against UFOs as aliens, one of the most ridiculed topics ever. But then I started to study loud very distant aliens, and the topic of alien UFOs became more relevant.

To limit the damage, I once tried to talk only on what UFOs would imply if they really were aliens, but not crossing the line to discuss if they actually are. But on reflection I can see that this topic is in fact neglected, important, and has synergies with my skills and other topics. So now I am shamed into trying to live up to my intellectual ideals, which if truth be told aren’t as strongly rooted in me as I’d like to pretend. Sigh. So here goes, let’s talk about explaining UFO encounters.

I see four major categories of explanation:

  • (A) Honest mistakes: This includes misunderstandings of familiar phenomena, delusions and mental illness, and natural phenomena that we now poorly understand.
  • (B) New Govt. Tech: Some current Earth government is testing new tech far more advanced than anything publicly admitted. Or is using it for limited secret purposes.
  • (C) Hoaxes & Lies: Some are going out of their way to fool observers into thinking they see weird stuff, or just straight lying to say they saw stuff they didn’t see.
  • (D) Aliens, Etc.: This tech seen is far more advanced than anything available to any current Earth government. So it is from a hidden more advanced society on Earth, aliens from elsewhere, time-travelers from the future, or something even weirder.

Now it seems pretty obvious that if we are rather inclusive in our definition of “UFO encounter” then (A) is the best explanation for most of them. The interesting question is how best to explain the few hardest to explain encounters. Here is a related Twitter poll I just did:

Notice that I made the mistake here of lumping foreign governments into option (D), instead of into option (B) as I do above. If I had done the poll right, my guess is that we’d see: (A) 57%, (B) ~23%, (C) 10%, (D) ~10%.

Over the last few months I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching and thinking on this topic, and I do think I have a judgement to report, a judgement that should represent news to those inclined to copy my judgment. First, (A) or (B) seems to me much less likely than (C) or (D). Second, between (Ca) spontaneous decentralized hoaxes and lies, and (Cb) hoaxes and lies coordinated by a big central organization, (Cb) seems much more likely. And third, among (Da) aliens, (Db) secret societies, (Dc) time-travelers, and (Dd) something even weirder, (Da) seems more likely.

Thus I see the main choice as between (Cb) and (Da), which would together be supported by only ~10% of poll respondents, and between which I can’t decide. Thus I am making a relatively strong claim here, at least relative to poll opinions. Let me outline some of my reasons.

First, if you look at the details of the usual hardest cases, to ones to which UFO fans most often point, you will see that there are often a lot of pretty sober looking people who all say they saw the same pretty clear and dramatic things under pretty good observing conditions. And often what they say they saw is solid-looking objects with remarkable combinations of location, speed, and acceleration, with no attendant thrust or control surfaces of the sort we’d use if we were trying to achieve those combinations.

I know enough physics and tech to know that these claimed abilities are just far beyond anything Earth governments will have access to for a long time, at least if the past is any guide. Or anything that natural weather could make. And similar abilities have been seen for over a half century, so if governments were hiding these abilities they’d be hiding them for far longer than they usually hide techs.

I also know enough human nature to know that these are not close to the sort of things that honest sober sane people would claim to see, if they just somewhat misinterpreted something that they saw or heard. And most of the people reporting in these strongest cases do seem pretty sober and sane. Thus in these strongest cases, the story that all these people are merely mistaken or deluded just doesn’t work, at least for the sorts of things they say they saw in these hardest cases. Nor does the story work that this is advanced government tech that they will release to show everyone in at most a few decades. So I must reject cases (A) and (B), which leaves me only with cases (C) and (D).

[Added 6May: Note that I am making judgements here about particular cases that I’ve considered in some detail. I am not saying I always believe what anyone says they saw. For a comparison, I find the usual evidence presented re ghosts and fairies to be much less persuasive. ]

Yes, humans like to play practical jokes on one another, and sometimes they take those jokes to some pretty far extremes. Sometimes they even try to make the jokes last for years. And often they are inspired to copy the jokes of others. But to explain most of these hardest cases mainly in terms of practical jokes seems just a bridge too far. Really, thousands of disconnected people all around the world playing the same big scary jokes for decades, and then almost never breaking down and laughing and crowing about their jokes even decades later? In contrast, governments, especially their spy parts, have run some pretty big, well-funded, and long-lasting disinformation campaigns. So I have to favor (Cb) over (Ca) by a big margin.

Regarding (D), time-travel seems impossible without crazy extreme physics, and known secret societies on Earth have never reached within orders of magnitude of the scale and degree of secrecy that this would require. Yet spirits or creatures from other dimensions seems even more crazy. Aliens, in contrast, are predicted to exist by our best theories. It is just a matter of finding a plausible scenario wherein they’d be here now doing what we see them doing, and not doing other stuff we don’t see them doing. I’ve tried to work out such a scenario, and find one that is a bit tortured, but far more believable than secret societies or travel across time or between dimensions.

Note that both (Cb)  and (Da) are hypotheses that I would have found priori implausible. So the entire existence of the familiar pattern of UFO encounters was a priori implausible, and so now that I see it I struggle to explain it. And as both of the most likely explanations are low status topics, i.e., aliens and a record-breaking-huge government conspiracy, you can see why most people would rather just avoid the topic.

This post is already too long, so I will stop here once I make one last point: (Cb) is a theory of remarkable government competence. Some governments, or a consortium of them, have managed to get thousands of people to either lie and say they saw stuff they didn’t, or paid for expensive enough tech to fool them. And yet this conspiracy has remained hidden for a great many decades, even from the top levels of their own governments.

In contrast, (Da) seems to require a scenario of remarkable incompetence, among the aliens themselves, among our governments, and even among the UFO activists. So which is more likely: surprisingly high government competence, or incompetence?

Added 7June: This poll agrees with me.

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Managed Competition or Competing Managers?

Competition and cooperation [as] opposites, with vice on one side and virtue on the other … is a false dichotomy … The market-based competition envisioned in economics is disciplined by rules and reputations. … Just as competition is not a shorthand for “anything goes,” the quick and thoughtless inference that cooperation is necessarily virtuous is often unjustified. In many cases, cooperation is a tool for an in-group to take advantage of those outside the group. …

Competition refers to a situation in which people or organizations (such as firms) apply their efforts and talents toward a certain goal, and they receive results based substantially on their performance relative to each other. … Cooperation refers to a situation in which the participants seek out win-win outcomes from working together. (More)

Raw unconstrained competition looks scary; lies, betrayal, predation, starvation, war; so many things can go wrong! Which makes “managed competition” sound so comforting; whew, someone will limit the problems. Someone like a boss, police officer, sports referee, or government regulator.

However, raw unconstrained management also looks scary; that’s tyranny, which can go wrong in so so many ways! Such as via incompetence, exploitation, and rot. And so we can be comforted to hear that managers must compete. For example, when individual managers compete for jobs, firms compete for customers, or politicians compete for votes.

But who will guard the guardians? If we embed competitions within larger systems of managers, and also embed managers within larger systems of competition, won’t they all sit within some maximally-encompassing system, which must then be either competition, management, or some awkward mix of the two? This is the fundamental hard problem of design and governance, from which there is no easy escape. Continue reading "Managed Competition or Competing Managers?" »

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A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past

In his new book The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens–and Ourselves, Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum purports to tell us what intelligent aliens will be like when we meet them:

This book is about how we can use that realistic scientific approach to draw conclusions, with some confidence, about alien life – and intelligent life in particular. (p.1)

Now, that won’t be for a long time, and they will even then be far more advanced than us:

We are absolutely in the infancy of our technological development, and that makes it exceptionally likely that any aliens we encounter will be more advanced than us. (p.160)

The chances of us encountering intelligent aliens [anytime soon] is so remote as to be almost dismissed. (p.320)

Even so, this is what aliens will be like:

One way to prepare ourselves mentally and practically for First Contact is … to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are certain properties that intelligent life must have. … their behavior, how they move and feed and come together in societies, will be similar to ours. …

[Aliens and us] both have families and pets, read and write books, and care for our children and our relatives. … this situation is actually very likely. Those evolutionary focus that push us to be the way we are must also be pushing life on other planets to be like us. (pp.322-323)

And this will be their origin story: Continue reading "A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past" »

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To Beat Aliens, We Must Become Aliens

Fight fire with fire. It takes a thief to catch a thief. To defeat your enemy, know and become your enemy.

Across the long sweep of history, our ancestors have greatly changed. Animals to primates to foragers to farmers to the industrialists of today. Across these many ages, we’ve greatly changed our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. During the ages of humanity, this has led to increasing “alienation”, as our worlds drift increasingly far from the worlds in which human nature was formed.

Someday we may become expansive aliens who rapidly spread life and civilization throughout a vast volume, stopping only perhaps when we meet other expansive aliens (in perhaps a few hundred million years). But we are far from up to that task now, and to reach that level we must probably pass through several more ages. Ages with big changes to our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. (Perhaps the next age would be an “age of em”.)

These changes will induce even greater alienation, at least as long as human nature doesn’t change greatly. And even if our descendants manage to change human nature, to make their new worlds seem more natural to them, that very prospect may horrify the residents of some prior ages. They may see even modest changes a loss of “humanity” due to many specific value changes. And so they may seek to prevent such new ages.

And this, I expect, is one of the greatest obstacles to our descendants becoming expansionist, and taking their place among the great alien civilizations who fill the universe with life and thereafter set its destinies. Some particular age, which could only have existed because many prior ages diminished and give birth to new different ages, “will stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”.

The ability to do this will be greatly aided by a world government, both in mood and in implementation. Which part of why I fear such a government. Let each age instead “diminish, and go into the West“, giving birth to differing descendant ages, so that we can help fill the cosmos with life, with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky“.

Added 9am: To make the matter more concrete, if they had understood the actual consequences, should pre-human primates have wanted to prevent the rise of humans? Should hyper-egalitarian, leisurely, and promiscuous foragers have wanted to prevent the rise of farmers,  with their hard work, war, inequality, slaves, and marriage? Should strongly religious, nationalistic and pro-marriage farmers have wanted to prevent the rise of industrialists who abandon such things? Should we want to prevent an age of em?

Added 7Apr: In four Twitter polls, I asked if the people of various eras would, according to their values, want to prevent successor ages. Results: 2-1 majorities think forager & farmer values would lead them to prevent following (farmer & industry) eras, even as majorities think primate & industry era values would not lead them to prevent following (human & em) eras. This seems to be overall pretty bad news for the prospect of there being many future eras once eras can coordinate to prevent successor eras.

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Meta-Comments On UFO Talk

Following my “live and learn” strategy, after having written a bit about UFOs, let me now make some meta-comments.

For most intellectuals, UFOs are a topic “beyond the pale” and “outside the Overton window”. As was the topic of sex once, not because people didn’t think sex existed, but because of a consensus it wasn’t a “serious” topic. We generally know which topics do and don’t have this label, even if we don’t have much of an idea of why each label was once applied.

Since I started talking about UFOs, I’ve more clearly seen some of the rules we apply to talk near the edge of acceptable topics. The edge isn’t that sharp, so these are rules that apply more strongly but in a graded way as you approach closer to the edge, and then perhaps go past it.

As you approach the edge of the pale, your tone is supposed to become more jocular, your language less precise and more evocative, and your writings short and infrequent. High prestige people are allowed to go a bit further toward or past the edge without modifying their writings quite as much in these directions. You are expected to eagerly lampoon any who violate these rules.

We can think of all this as our having a “vote” on whether to move the Overrton window, with high prestige people of course getting far more votes. If you go much further than usual in taking such a topic seriously, as your attempt to argue for moving the window, that will mostly fail, as you will mainly be seen as losing your standing to vote on the topic.

I’ve noticed that this topic of UFOs makes me feel especially uncomfortable. I look at the many details, and many seem to cry out “there really is something important here.” But I know full well that most people refuse to look at the details, and are quick to denigrate those who do, being confident in getting wide social support when they do.

So I’m forced to choose between my intellectual standards, which say to go where the evidence leads, and my desire for social approval, or at least not extra disapproval. I know which one I’m idealistically supposed to pick, but I also know that I don’t really care as much for picking the things you are supposed to pick as I pretend to myself or others.

We often fantasize about being confronted with a big moral dilemma, so we can prove our morality to ourselves and others. But we should mostly be glad we don’t get what we wish for, as we are often quite wrong about how we would actually act.

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